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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Chekhov, Society, And The Individual

With only a few exceptions, Chekhov’s characters are inactive.  They are intelligent, reflective, and serious about their lives and the future, but are so caught between thought and action, between the weight of the past and an uncertain, changing future, or between a commitment to social progress and a responsibility to individual expression.


Nowhere in Chekhov do we find the uncomplicatedly direct and purposeful characters of Ibsen – Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel all of whom are driven by a powerful will and an uncompromising belief in the unique value of individual power.

These conflicts are evident in Chekhov’s plays, but also in his short stories.  Chekhov considered himself a short story writer first and a playwright second, and in his long tales of survival amidst the dislocating changes in Russian society prior to the Revolution he creates sympathetic characters who try out various personae – some which lean towards social justice and betterment; others who begin as naïve innocents but who come into their own and blossom as uniquely creative individuals.

Young Poloznev at the beginning of the short story My Life: The Story of a Provincial, challenges the received wisdom of the aristocracy; and, anticipating the rise of the peasant/worker class, challenges his father who is deeply rooted in traditional values of good breeding, intellectual sophistication, and noblesse oblige. Poloznev wants to leave home and his comfortable, privileged life and go to the country and work like a peasant.
What you call position in society”, he says to his father, “is the privilege of capital and education. Those who have neither wealth nor education earn their daily bread by manual labor, and I see no grounds for my being an exception.
His father presents another side to the argument – not the predictable one based on history, ancestry, and the right of the nobility, but one more sophisticated:
When you begin talking about manual labor it is always stupid and vulgar.  Understand, you dense fell…that besides coarse physical strength you have a divine spirit, a spark of the holy fire, which distinguishes you in the most striking way from the ass or the reptile, and brings you nearer the Deity.  This fire is the fruit of the efforts of the best of mankind during thousands of years….All the Poloznevs have not guarded the sacred fire for you to put out!
This same argument was suggested by a French aristocrat whose lineage dated back to the Third Crusade (1189-92).  He was incensed at the students and workers on the streets in 1968 who – like Poloznev – were trying to dismantle the architecture of French culture that his ancestors created.  All that is great about France, he said – art, literature, music, and philosophy – came from the nobility who had been the custodians of European Christian tradition since Roland beat back the Muslim hordes at Roncesvalles.  The nobility and its treasure of culture had not been destroyed by the French Revolution, and it would certainly not be undone now.



Chekhov was very prescient, or at least had his ear very close to the ground when he wrote his plays and stories only a few years before 1917, and he observed the class conflicts that were already beginning in Russian society. Poloznev leaves home for the country and is happy to leave the town which he has always found pretentious and affected. There was no garden, no theatre, no decent food.  Even the wealthy and well-educated slept in unhealthy, airless, infested rooms, drank polluted water, and were indifferent to their environment.

What was worse, the town was a sinkhole of venality and corruption.  Everyone took bribes – the military, the clergy, doctors, teachers, public officials, and artisans.  Those few who did not take money, such as the higher officials at the Department of Justice, “were haughty, offered two fingers instead of shaking hands, were distinguished by their frigidity and narrowness of their judgments, spent a great deal of time over cards, drank to excess, married heiresses, and undoubtedly had a pernicious corrupting influence on those around them”.

Poloznev became a house-painter, and sought the life of a laborer. Yet he could not rid himself of the indoctrination he had received as a child, nor the intellectualizing which had plagued him since he was young. 
I was living now among people to whom labor was obligatory, inevitable, and who worked like cart horses, often with no idea of the moral significance of labor…
It wasn’t enough to work, thought Poloznev.  A worker must appreciate the intrinsic value of what he does.  This theme is repeated in Three Sisters during the debates between Vershinin and Tuzenbach when the latter shares his conviction that there is an intrinsic value to labor.  It doesn’t matter whether society is progressing or not.  What counts is the ennobling, edifying act of work.


Poloznev engages his friend Blagovo as Tuzenbach did Vershinin. “And don’t you think that if everyone, including the best men, the thinkers and great scientists, taking part in the struggle for existence, each on his own account, is going to waste his time breaking stones and painting roofs, may not that threaten a grave danger to progress?”

Masha Dolzhikov, daughter of a wealthy merchant and the woman Poloznev grows to love, is as concerned as he about the plight of the worker and the value of work, but feels like Blagovo that it is a waste of talent and intellect to work like them. “We must study, study, and study”, she says, “and we must wait a bit with our deep social movements; we are not mature enough for them yet; and to tell the truth, we don’t know anything about them”.

Life in the country was anything but idyllic, and the difference between Poloznev’s intellectual convictions and peasant reality was harsh and unsettling.
The peasant who turned up the soil with his plough and urged on his pitiful horse, wet and tattered, with his craning neck, was to me the expression of coarse, savage, ugly force; and every time I looked at the peasant’s uncouth movements, I involuntarily began thinking of the legendary life of the remote past….
Soon the ugly presence of the peasants intruded on the married life of Poloznev and Masha:
A potbellied horse would stumble forward…wet and slimy-looking; and beside it muffled up against the rain strode a peasant with the skirts of his coat tucked up inside his belt, not looking where he was going but stepping into the puddles…Men and women, with their heads muffled and skirts tucked up, would stare angrily at our windows, and make an uproar.  Coarse oaths were audible.
Finally, emboldened, the peasants began to steal from them, bark the lime trees in their wood, took the wheels of their new carts, stole night boards, bricks, tiles, and pieces of iron.  “What beasts!”, shouted Masha. “It’s awful! awful!”.  Blagovo agrees.
Are peasants men? They are not men, but…wild beasts, imposters.  All the peasant cares for is his victuals to be cheaper and swilling liquor at the tavern like a fool…nothing but ignorance.  He lives in filth, his wife lives in filth, and his children live in filth.
Poloznev comes to agree; but still clings to the belief that there is a certain nobility in a peasant.  “The peasant believes that the chief thing on earth is truth and justice, and that his salvation and that of the whole people was only to be found in truth and justice…”

Masha, too, as much as she hates the peasants around her, refuses to dismiss them entirely and embraces the noblesse oblige sentiment of her class.  It is the arts – beauty and refinement – which will be her contribution to improving the lot of the masses.

Despite the depth of political commitment of Poloznev and Masha, their background, upbringing and individual characters finally determine who they become.  Both Poloznev and his sister were brutalized by a domineering father and both emerged from the experience damaged and ill-equipped to deal with life, especially the dynamically changing Russian life of the end of the 19th century. 

Kleopatra, Poloznev’s sister marries a womanizer who leaves her with three children while he establishes a second family.  She dies unhappily of tuberculosis, still in love with her husband despite his irresponsibility.  She has been emotionally damaged by her father and never able to assert her own will.

Poloznev ends his life unhappy, disappointed and resentful.
“I have grown older”, he says, “have become silent, stern, and austere.  I rarely laugh, and I am told that I have grown like ______, and that like him I bore the workmen by my useless exhortations.
Nothing has worked out for him.  His youthful enthusiasm was eroded by his unwilling confrontation with the ugly reality of peasant life and the persistent intrusion of the finely-tuned ideals of his privileged background.  No matter how much he might be superficially committed to the cause of the peasantry and workers, his intellect, breeding, and education has always placed him on the side of the ruling class.  He would always be an aristocratic intellectual; but because he discarded the privilege of this life and chose to ally himself with those beneath him, he was never able to recoup his position and authority.  In other words, he ended up with nothing.

Masha left him because of his inaction, his inability to resolve the conflict within him.  She said that she was leaving to pursue a life in the arts because of the contribution to those less fortunate who could benefit from her work; but she had simply come into her own.  She had emerged out of the dark shadow of Poloznev and his indecisiveness, and went off on her own.  The reader does not doubt that she lived a life of pleasure, excitement, and sexual gratification.

Chekhov was eloquent in his depiction of characters constrained by family, ancestry, expectations, and social mores.  The tragedy of Poloznev is that he was unable to negotiate unfamiliar waters, and was too naïve to understand the treacherous social currents in them.  His idealism about social equality and justice blinded him to the reality of natural, inbred, and consequential differences between people and classes. Kleopatra at one point suggests that peasants are poor and immobile because of poverty; but Blagovo insists that this is a facile argument.  There is no reason why a peasant could not decipher the code for success and at least improve his lot by measured degree.

Poloznev did not have to ‘become’ a peasant to promote the peasant cause.  He could have accepted his background, intelligence, and intellect and used them in the service of the working class; but his deep hatred and resentment of his father pushed him to illogical extremes.  He became a peasant to spite his father.  Poloznev’s tragedy is his inability to understand the shackles which bound him as he became an adult.  If he had realized how limited he – or any individual – was, he might have been able to marshal and direct his resources towards the ends he envisaged as an adolescent.

Chekhov’s tragedy of inaction is as powerful as other playwrights’ melodramas of willful action.  As much as one admires Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Nora, Rebekka West, or Hilde Wangel for their absolute will and determination, it is for Poloznev for whom we feel sympathy and empathy.

Chekhov’s characters are ours.  We all are born with ideals, energy, and boundless enthusiasm.  Nothing can stop us on our way.  Little by little, however, we realize that we are pulling someone else’s traces, hauling someone else’s baggage that has been loaded on the sledge – our parents’, the bishop’s, ‘society’.  We are deceived by the promise of youth, and learn too late the insufficiency of innocence.

Masha sees that few people understand, decide, and act; and too many join mediocre, ineffectual movements as compromises to their values.  The choice is clear – either to join the struggle with all the force, will, and determination that can be mustered; or to resign oneself to the only true validation of human life – individual will.  Poloznev, like most of Chekhov’s characters are caught between the two.

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